The 50+ Films of Christmas (Part 3)

The 50+ Films of Christmas

Follow me as I watch 50+ of the best (and worst) holiday films! I will blog mini-reviews as I go and then rank them when I’m done watching them all.

6.5 Prancer


In most cases of a film that follows a child actor, you are presented with a kid that is precocious far beyond their years. I think filmmakers are often afraid of placing a protagonist that adults can’t relate to front and center. Either that, or the filmmakers are so far away from their own childhood that they don’t remember how to work with a bona fide child. With “Prancer,” what you get is an authentic performance from a little girl that isn’t ready to take the first steps away from her childish wonder.

Way back in 1989, Rebecca Harrell Tickell played an eight year old Jessica Riggs. Her best friend was the girl from “Jurassic Park,” she was bullied by Leonard from “The Big Bang Theory,” and she wasn’t ready to stop believing in Santa Claus, even though it meant she was the only kid left. You see, her deceased mother told her about Santa, and she wouldn’t lie. And besides, if there’s no Santa, there may be no God, and without God, there is no Heaven. Where was mommy if all that’s true?

Little Jessica nurses a reindeer back to health, believing it to be one of Santa’s. To do so, she must lie to her struggling father (Sam Elliott), coerce the town vet (Abe Vigoda), befriend the local shut-in (Cloris Leachman), and explore the complicated relationship she has with her brother, a boy who teases and rebels as his own defensive mechanism to help him not think about mom.

It’s a gentle and sensitive story, and I quite liked it. There are places where I wish the cinematographer and editor had had a conversation, but then there are shots that are exultantly Christmas.

It doesn’t hurt that little Jessica reminds me of my own sister.


7.5 Trapped In Paradise

Trapped in Paradise

It really feels like someone discovered an old desk in Hollywood, and inside the locked drawer was a screenplay from the early 1940’s. Maybe Michael Curtiz was at the helm, molding the script to fit Humphrey Bogart, James Cagney, and Peter Lorre. Maybe they had Edward G. Robinson and Boris Karloff lined up to play the villains. This movie may be a wholly original idea from 1994, but it feels like a remake.

Nicolas Cage, John Lovitz, and Dana Carvey are brothers. Lovitz is the fast-talking liar, Carvey is the childlike kleptomaniac, and Cage is the smart one who is trapped between two paths. Part of him wants to do the right thing, and part of him kicks himself for doing the right thing. When Cage’s jailhouse brothers spring early release for the holidays, he gets roped into robbing a bank in the small town of Paradise.

Yes, this is a Christmas movie about criminals who are trying to make a hasty getaway, and they are trapped in a winter wonderland where every member of the community is ready to loan you their last dime, give you a lift, or pull you out of the frozen river.

“Trapped in Paradise” may not be a Frank Cappra classic, but it kind of feels like he tackled a draft.


8 Four Christmases

Four Christmases

“You can’t spell families without lies.” That’s the creed of one couple that prefers role play and the same vacation over and over over familial intimacy.

Only this Christmas, Vince Vaughn and Reese Witherspoon are caught in their lies and have to spend the holiday with their kin. Since both of our protagonists are the product of divorce, that means they have four destinations all in the same day.

This film wouldn’t have worked if they hadn’t come up with five very different shades. First you have the posh and polished couple themselves. There’s the rustic compound Vaughn’s father inhabits, where men can cage fight in peace. Then there’s a cougar den of bouncy castles and mega churches, a hippy home where Vaughn’s best bud from high school is banging his mom, and finally a warm and comfortable home for the holidays. There are textures to this crazy layer cake family.

Another element that would have made the whole thing collapse had it not been just right is the cast. In addition to the two stars, we get Robert Duvall, Mary Steenburgen, Sissy Spacek, Jon Voight, Dwight Yoakam, Tim McGraw, Kristin Chenoweth, Katy Mixon, and Jon Favreau. It’s a great cast, and you get the impression that fun was had on the set.

I will always take an opportunity to watch Vaughn and Favreau work together, and when you add Witherspoon and the rest of this cast to the mix, I’m definitely ready to spend four Christmases with some celluloid.


8 The Santa Clause

The Santa Clause

Coming off of his successful series, “Home Improvement,” Tim Allen proves that he can carry a movie.

Unlike “Jack Frost,” this is a story about a deadbeat dad that makes the father both likable and a legitimately poor poppa. Scott Calvin wants his kid to keep believing in Santa Claus, but you get the feeling it’s more because he wants to be on the opposite side of every decision the boy’s mother and step-father make. He’s a type-A personality that doesn’t like to be bothered by sensitive subjects or even the evidence that appears right before his eyes, suggesting that yes, Santa Claus *is* real. The clause that causes Scott Calvin to become the new Santa Claus also slowly transforms this loser daddy into. . . Well, Santa Claus.

The only problem I have with this movie is that it is too short to fully address all of the promises set by the premise. You can tell that there were probably a lot of revisions to the script, and scenes where Calvin had to deal with issues at work were cut back to make more room for the father/son story. There are eleven months where Tim Allen’s physical being and personality change him into a jolly, jelly-bellied elf, and it’s all over in just a handful of minutes. I haven’t seen them, but somehow I doubt the sequels properly satisfy these plot lines as well. Just a bit of a missed opportunity in an otherwise satisfactory film.

On a side note, I’d like to say that I especially appreciate David Krumholtz as Bernard the Elf. He somehow manages to play both an important part of Christmas that fully believes in the spirit of the whole thing and also be sort of an elf that’s perhaps a bit bored with the holiday. It’s a great character, performance, and maybe also a bit of an inside joke for Jewish actors that are cast in Christmas movies.


8.5 Joyeux Noel

Joyeux Noel

This is my favorite story from any conflict. This recent French film delves into incidents that occurred on Christmas exactly one hundred years ago. The filmmaker creates a rewarding cinematic experience that combines certain events and omits others that would seem too preposterous to be believed in a film, but which actually transpired.

Yes, a firing squad for a “treasonous” cat is among the deleted scenes.

What is this film about? Well, if you don’t know this often covered-up part of history, I’d like for you to discover it by actually watching this movie. If you do, then you’re already probably eager to watch it anyway.

The basic questions stirred by this movie are these:

1) Is lasting peace possible?

2) If so, how can we work towards it?

3) If not, what are the elements keeping us from having it?

Celebrate the centennial anniversary of this Great War’s greatest story.



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